RECENT revelations about sexual power dynamics in Hollywood have shocked and appalled the world. Yet with similar allegations coming to light in the realms of media and politics, it is now clear this Neanderthalic behaviour towards women is endemic.
Lady Macbeth – director William Oldroyd’s adaptation of an 1865 Nikolai Leskov novel – imagines a defiance of such sexual dynamics in the rigid and repressed age of Victorian Britain. The outcome is a passionate, crimson-laced tale with stark visuals and a marvellous lead performance from Florence Pugh. A film made with a small budget but one that packs a mighty punch.
Pugh plays Kathrine Lest, a young lady unhappily married off to wealthy businessman Alexander (Paul Hilton). From the moment we set eyes on Katherine we can see that her marriage, the product of a business arrangement, is doomed. The veiled bride gazes up disinterestedly from her hymn book at the altar – exuding a sense of longing that will only intensify.
With marriage, Katherine becomes a prisoner in her husband’s home. She spends her days staring out of windows at the beautiful and brutal surrounding landscape which she has not been allowed to enjoy – on Alexander’s orders.
Despite her sedentary indoors lifestyle, Katherine is still squeezed into a corset every day – another physically restrictive element of her life – and made to wear a dour blue dress.
Katherine is unsurprisingly numbed by this dull routine. Her minimal contact with the opposite sex comes when attending formal dinners with older men who barely acknowledge her.
Likewise, Alexander will not touch her when he comes to bed and, instead, asks her to undress and face the wall while he pleasures himself in the corner – the sounds of which are enough to make you squirm and retch.
Respite from Katherine’s boredom finally arrives when a business emergency draws Alexander and his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) away from the home. Katherine’s first response to this newfound freedom is to open the window and feel the fresh air. Perhaps the first time she has ‘felt’ something since she got married.
This small act, however, is just the beginning of Katherine’s insubordination. Starved of contact for so long, she starts to feast on epicurean pleasures. Food, wine, long walks and, most dangerously, a not-so-secret affair with outdoors worker Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).
Swept away by these pleasures, Katherine is intent on preserving this liberated way of living – and at any cost. It sets off a passion-fuelled chain of events that, as the title forebodes, includes violent action.
Lady Macbeth is a fierce piece of storytelling – one of the finest of 2017. Oldroyd and cinematographer Ari Wegner deliver arresting visuals to ensure this film stands out among the period drama crowd. One visual stands out among many – a recurring image of Katherine, in her blue dress, sitting down on the living room sofa as a clock slowly ticks away. With Katherine in the centre of the frame, it is powerful image of Victorian orderliness that is about to be disrupted.
As well as Oldroyd, Lady Macbeth marks a huge triumph for Pugh, an actress with the world at her feet. Her hypnotic central performance exudes authority, sensuality and a well-measured dash of modernity.
If you have yet to see Lady Macbeth, I urge you to before the year is out. Viewed through the lens of current events – or not – it makes for compelling cinema.